Release The Pounds

For some inexplicable reason, some of the biggest global names in pop music appear to be ignoring the UK. While the rest of the world is getting to buy bona fide pop bangers, we Brits are being forced to wait, sometimes for months on end, before we can purchase them ourselves. What gives, guys?

Have you heard the latest Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars track? If not, holy shit. You should rectify that immediately. Uptown Funk couldn’t be any more of a banger if it was a dynamite stick wrapped in sausage casing. It’s like an unreleased Prince song that Michael Jackson could have worked wonders with. It is an absolutely belting pop single.

The video’s out too now – take a look. Great, isn’t it? You can just imagine this one going down a storm at Christmas parties. From the crappiest office booze-up to the coolest nightclubs, it’s the sort of track that would get even the most exhausted reveller back up onto the dancefloor for one last four-minute freak out.

But you’re unlikely to hear Uptown Funk at any Christmas parties this year – at least not in the UK. Why? Because unless the DJ is willing to stream it from YouTube (or unless they’ve taped it off the radio), they have no way to play it. The song isn’t released in the UK until January 11th. Two months’ time.

If you live in the States, you’ll have no problem. You can download the song right now and play it to your heart’s content. It was released on November 10th there. You’ve had a week and change to bust a move to it. In the UK though, we’re having to wait.

This is happening a lot with big singles at the moment. Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. Gwen Stefani’s Baby Don’t Lie. They’re released onto the internet, they gain a bit of traction on social media, and then… nothing. They don’t get properly released in the UK for ages.

What the hell, music business? What possible reason could there be for this? Are the record labels being deliberately withholding? Is there some sort of clever gameplan at play here? Or they just being unthinkably stupid?

1) They’re trying to generate a buzz, getting everyone excited for the release so that it gets to number one.

Ah, ‘buzz’. Often chased and rarely caught, industry people can become so obsessed by the highly-sought after quality of ‘buzz’, that they forget the primary purpose of it is to actually help sell records – something you can only do when the record has been, y’know… released.

The release dates for Uptown Funk and Baby Don’t Lie are particularly interesting because they are both chalked in for January 11th 2015 – completely missing the balls-out spendfest that is Christmas. January is famously a dry month for retail, what with all the post-holiday belt-tightening, so it seems like a weird time to release a single if you want it to sell. Why would they deliberately avoid the pre-Christmas sales opportunity?

Well, it’s true that you can get to the top of the charts in January by selling relatively few records (because no-one is buying anything) but if that’s their plan, it could very easily backfire. Not only are Ronson and Stefani going head to head – which will result in at least one loser – leaving a two month lag between the song’s premiere and its release in the UK iTunes store is exactly what cost Nicki Minaj a very easy number one.

Anaconda was all anyone could talk about when it first hit YouTube. People loved the Sir Mix-A-Lot sample; the video was being discussed and dissected by every pop culture commentator worth their salt; it broke online streaming records with 19.6 million plays in 24 hours. But by the time it was finally released here, nearly eight weeks later, people had either had their fill of the track, or they had ripped a copy off YouTube for lack of any legitimate channel through which to purchase it.

It still reached number three, so it wasn’t a complete washout, but if it had been available to buy from the UK iTunes store when everyone was clamouring to watch the video, she’d have easily scored her first solo number one.

So much for ‘buzz’ then…

2) It’s a tactical delay, so that they aren’t competing with a charity single for the top spot.

Around Christmastime, the UK charts become absolutely sodden with charity singles. Listening to the Top 40 in November and December is like trying to walk down a street lined with chuggers. It’s awful. This year alone we’ve had the Band Aid ebola remix, the BBC cover of God Only Knows, Children In Need’s kiddie choir version of Wake Me Up, the Peace Collective’s remake of All Together Now. There’s the single from the John Lewis ad, the single from the Waitrose ad, we’ll get the X Factor winner doing something or other and there’s still more.

You don’t want to go up against a charity single in the charts for two good reasons. One is that charity singles sell by the ton because people feel duty bound to buy them (even if they are lazy, patronising pieces of shit – Geldof…). The other is that you look like a colossal twat if you end up keeping those singles off number one, as if you feel your pop career is more important than injured veterans or children with leukaemia.

No other market gets flooded to quite the same extent with charity singles as the UK one (you can count on one hand the number of charity singles that America has produced since We Are The World in 1985) so that might be why Ronson, Mars and Stefani have all chosen to wait until it clears in January.

But that still doesn’t explain why Minaj did it in August and October though.

3) They’re releasing the singles later so that they’re eligible for the 2015 BRIT Awards.

God, could you imagine? That would be the bleakest fucking reason if it were in any way true.

No, as most of the acts doing this are American, the only awards they would be eligible for are the Best International Male/Female/Group awards (which don’t specify any particular single). Mark Ronson – being British – is the only one who’d be in with a shout for a Best Single nomination but the BRITs’ weirdly flexible 16 month eligibility period would accommodate either a November or a January release.

So thankfully we can discount the idea that the international music market is bowing to the whim of people like James Corden and Ant and Dec.

4) The label doesn’t care about the single. This is just a taster for the album. That’s what they’re wanting to sell.

A slightly more sensible theory – one that does seem fairly plausible on the face of it – but it doesn’t hold up to a great deal of scrutiny.

As Beyoncé and David Bowie both proved last year, playing a teaser PR game is completely unnecessary when you’ve got yourself name. Overnight they dropped unannounced records and let the wagging tongues of the internet do their press and public relations for them – to wild success.

And while the artists who are currently keeping the UK at arm’s length aren’t quite Beyoncés or Bowies, they’re hardly underground artists. They are proven multi-platinum selling performers. So if someone like Aphex Twin can drop a secret album on the deep web and everyone still manages to find out about it, you can be sure that anything Gwen Stefani chooses to release won’t disappear without a trace.

Besides, Daft Punk have kind of ruined the album teaser trailer for everybody with the gargantuan prickteasing they did for Random Access Memories – hyping it up for months and months and months with a namedrop here, a snatch of audio there, the occasional glimpse of video. It was a juggernaut campaign for what ended up being a fairly average album, and it undoubtedly worked for them. But what actually ended up selling the most?

To date, the album Random Access Memories has sold about 2.8 million copies worldwide. The single Get Lucky has sold 9.3 million. If their relentless advertising worked for anything, it worked for the single.

This is a trend we’re seeing across both the US and the UK’s charts. Single sales are eclipsing album sales by a phenomenal factor.

Consider this. Aside from the Frozen soundtrack (released in 2013, and still selling by the boatload) the only album to have surpassed a million in sales in the States this year is Taylor Swift’s 1989. Beyoncé’s album hasn’t. Katy Perry’s album hasn’t. Coldplay’s album hasn’t. They’re all stalling in the six-figures.

This problem isn’t exclusive to 2014 either. Album sales – both digital and physical – in the US have been in fairly steady decline since 2007, now selling about half the amount they used to (and most of those were probably Adele’s).

If you look at singles though, the opposite is happening. Increasing numbers are passing the million mark – many passing the multi-million mark.

In fact, aside from a few staples like White Christmas, I Will Always Love You and Candle In The Wind, pretty much every single to have sold more than six million copies has been released in the last five years (and Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ only managed it after the Glee bump of 2009).

The man who neatly sums up the entire situation? Pharrell. He has featured on three of the biggest-selling singles of all time – all of which were released in the last two years (Get Lucky – 9.3m; Happy – 10m; Blurred Lines – 14.3m). That’s nearly 25 million single sales, yet his album has only shifted 500,000 copies in the States.

The same thing is happening in the UK. 20% of all of the singles to sell a million-plus copies were released in, or after, 2009. This isn’t because singles are getting quantitatively better. It’s because people – thanks to the ease (and price) of digital purchasing – are buying more and more singles.

Obviously, record companies still want people to buy albums. They’re worth eight to ten times more than any individual single purchase. But the idea that a company would throw a single away just to lure people into to purchasing an album appears to run at odds with every scrap of evidence about the way our purchasing patterns are moving.

People are buying singles. Or at least they will, if only they’re allowed to.

5) It’s for the advertising money. The record labels want people to play it on YouTube so they get more money.

The lump sum vs installment argument. Is it better for an artist to take a larger fixed rate per single sold, and enjoy one or two big windfall payments in the first few weeks of the single’s release – then nothing else? Or is it better to gamble and hope that your song is catchy enough that lots of people play it on YouTube over a prolonged period – and you take in a steadier stream of smaller payments over a series of months and years?

The answer is different for different acts. For some, there is a definite merit to the long-term YouTube ad revenue model over traditional single sales.

Take Rebecca Black, for example. Three years ago, her song Friday was a massive internet hit – largely because (and we don’t think we’re being unfair in saying this) it was total wank. People couldn’t share it fast enough on social media, telling people to check out this horror show. Within days, Rebecca Black was a viral superstar.

Although the current view count for the official video for Friday appears to sit around the 73 million mark, it initially racked up about 167 million views before Black pulled it off YouTube (nominally because of a legal complication, but presumably partly out of embarrassment too).

In total then it has clocked nearly 240 million views. What does that sort of view count pay out at? Well, although figures fluctuate depending on your viewers’ engagement with the pre-roll ads, Forbes has estimated that advertisers will pay a rather nicely rounded average of $1 per 1,000 views. That means Friday’s 240 million views have a cash value of $240,000.

(Of course, YouTube will take a cut of this sum, as will the record label and writers – so Rebecca Black won’t see anything like that amount personally – but let’s just concentrate on gross figures as these sorts of cuts and percentages apply across all of the various platforms.)

$240,000 might not seem like very much for a huge hit song, but given that it was recorded and the video shot as part of a $2,000 package, YouTube alone has made the whole thing an incredibly profitable endeavour. And $240,000 is certainly a lot more than the song ever made her in digital download sales. (Black had first week figures of 37,000 downloads – which falls a long way short of raking in the same sort of money.)

Artists can walk away with much more than a quarter-million dollars too. Psy’s Gangnan Style amassed an absolutely massive 2 billion views on YouTube. 2,000,000,000. From the YouTube advertising revenue that generated he was estimated to have earned $2m.

Which, by anyone’s calculations, is pretty amazing going, right? But then when you consider the song went on to sell nearly 12 million copies globally (bringing in ~$7.2 million after Apple take their hosting/delivery fee) you see that, while YouTube money is certainly not to be sniffed at, it is really no substitute for a good set of sales.

And this is where this argument starts to fall apart, because for streaming plays to earn an artist the equivalent of one paid-for single, someone would have to view the track roughly 700 times on YouTube. That is over 40 straight hours of listening to Baby Don’t Lie; 52 straight hours of listening to Uptown Funk; and 56 straight hours of listening to Anaconda.

Or it’s one click in iTunes.

There is no good reason why a record company would prioritise ad revenue from YouTube views over actual cash-for-track transactions. More importantly though, there is also no good reason why the two releases (or, to use the twattish parlance of accountants, the two ‘revenue streams’) can’t happily coexist. You can have the single on sale for the fans who want to buy it, and you can have the video up on YouTube for the freeloaders – both earning you money at the same time.

So if the idea is to try to somehow wring a bit of extra streaming money out of the UK audience before eventually giving us the single, it’s an extraordinarily backward plan. And if the record industry really don’t know how easy it is to rip an MP3 from YouTube, then someone should tell them. Because the answer to this whole problem sure as hell isn’t Theory #6.

6) Britain doesn’t do piracy. It’s the one place that can be trusted with a high-quality YouTube version for a few months.

The figures surrounding piracy are confusing, but they are not so confusing that they could support this sort of statement.

In an Ofcom study conducted from May 2012 to May 2013, it was shown that roughly a quarter of all ‘content’ downloaded from the internet infringed copyright laws. Of that quarter, one quarter was illegally accessed music. If that is accurate, then it means that roughly 6.25% of UK internet usage is dedicated to pirating music.

The study also showed that piracy is a minority interest, with only about 17% of internet users infringing copyright (another 2012 study by Musicmetric had the figure at 15%) and a very small percentage of those account for disproportionately huge amounts of the pirated material that is downloaded.

If the figures seem small, that’s because – relatively speaking – they are. But when you’re dealing with a multi-billion pound industry like the music business, even the smallest of percentages can amount to huge sums.

The BPI estimates that piracy still costs the music industry about £200 million a year. You’d think a hole that size is one you’d want to plug up pretty sharpish. Which is what makes actions like this all the more peculiar.

If you’re dangling an amazing pop song in front of people and giving them no legal way to purchase and own a copy, what do you think they’re going to do? Wait patiently for months until you suddenly give them the green light? Or will they use a simple, free and web-based piece of software to lift the audio track from a video and download it to their computer as a 192KB/s MP3?

Weirdest yet, the music industry knows this. They’ve known it for ages. That’s why they stopped sending threatening but ultimately toothless letters to the worst perpetrators. That’s why government-backed plans to curtail the internet access of those pirating the most material were shelved. The music industry quickly learned that they were best served focusing their energies on creating cheaper, easier and legal methods by which you download or stream music.

It’s easy to think that the music business if full of idiots who don’t know what they’re doing (especially when you see U2 releasing an album like it was a software virus; or you see Usher giving away his music in the bottom of a box of Honey Nut Cheerios) but we’re sympathetic to their plight, even if we don’t sound it. The ground has been shifting under their feet for the best part of 15 years now. The effects of MP3 technology and peer-to-peer sharing took them by surprise and online piracy spread on the web like a cold through a commune. They’ve had a hell of a battle to try to get it under control and they’re actually doing a pretty good job of it now.

So what the fuck reason do they have for not giving us proper, legal access to new singles? Why are they keeping British pop fans in the dark for months at a time when there’s such corking tunes out there that people want to buy?

We asked some people in the music business if they could shed any light on this mystery. One insider told us: “It’s because the artist is not here to promote the track, so the label wants to make the single release coincide with a UK visit. Never underestimate how old school majors are.”

But according to others, it might not strictly be the labels’ choice. Someone else told us: “Some UK radio stations insist on having the song “exclusively” on radio (i.e. not for sale) in return for adding it to their playlist. [UK labels] believe that releasing a song on the day it goes to radio means that it will chart badly. So they hold it back for 6-8 weeks so that radio plays will build demand and then, when the song is finally released, it makes a very high new entry. They don’t seem to care about the number of customers who download the song illegally in the 6-8 week period when it cannot be bought.”

Another said: “I’ve heard something about labels having to wait for certain exclusivity deals to end with Spotify before they can put the songs on sale.’

The fact that there is no unified answer on why this is happening, even from the people whose job it is to decide upon these things, is curious. It would suggest that this is actually an imaginary problem that high-paid execs have whipped into existence, and one that has quickly gone from ‘let’s try something out’ to ‘this is just how the business works now’.

It’s bafflingly counter-intuitive and, if it continues, will mark a big backwards step for musicians and performers (who will get put over the barrel even further by more and more business people); and a huge heave forward for marketing consultants, brand managers and PR representatives (which no-one really needs).

So, as music fans, if we can just make our voices heard for a quick second: